An engineering manager at an energy company—we’ll call him John Healy—wanted to sell his boss on a safer and cheaper gas-scrubbing technology. This might have been an easy task if his boss, the general manager, hadn’t selected the existing system just a year before. Instead it was, in Healy’s words, “a delicate process.” Fortunately, user reviews of the new technology had become available only in the past several months, which Healy tactfully mentioned in his presentation to the GM and other senior executives. He also included a detailed comparison of the two systems, drawing on implementations at comparable plants; the data suggested that the new system would remove contaminants more efficiently and reduce costs by about $700,000 a year. Because the GM was still on the fence, Healy brought in a bio-gas expert his boss trusted and respected to talk about the new technology’s merits. The company made the investment and adopted the new system.
Organizations don’t prosper unless managers in the middle ranks, like Healy, identify and promote the need for change. People at that level gather valuable intelligence from direct contact with customers, suppliers, and colleagues. They’re in a position to see when the market is ripe for a certain offering, for instance, or to detect early signs that a partnership won’t work out. But for many reasons, ranging from a fear of negative consequences to compliance with a top-down culture, they may not voice their ideas and concerns. As we know from our research and others’ work in this area, not to mention recent news stories, such silence can have dire consequences—like “regulatory capture” in banking and unchecked product safety risks. [read]